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MARCH PRIMARY MADNESS

Early Voting; Last-Minute & Online Registration; Absentee and Provisional Ballots; Ballot Verification and Counting After Election Day

[Editor’s Note: If you liked the tallying of votes in Iowa (41 delegates), California (495 delegates) may offer you true love.]

Fourteen states hold primaries next Tuesday, but millions of votes will already have been cast for those contests. Democrats over the years have pushed to expand early voting to help their candidates, but they may soon rue the results. Super Crazy March is possible.

Obama campaign veterans credited their victory in battleground states in 2008 and 2012 to leads in early voting. Democrats have since worked to extend early voting across the country with the aim of driving higher turnout among minorities and young people.

Forty or so states now let voters cast ballots before Election Day either at polling places or via mail. The average early voting period is about three weeks, though some allow as many as six. Minnesota holds its primary next Tuesday, but early voting began on January 17—nearly three weeks before the Iowa caucuses.

Absentee ballots are usually sent at voters’ request weeks before Election Day. Florida’s primary isn’t until March 17, but absentee ballots were mailed out two weeks ago. Colorado (March 3), Washington (March 10), Oregon (May 19) and 14 counties in California (March 3) mail ballots to all registered voters.

Rules on returning absentee ballots vary. Many states such as Colorado and Minnesota require that absentee ballots be received no later than Election Day. Colorado election officials have advised folks to return ballots at least a week before the primary, so most votes have probably been cast by now.

But in Washington, California and some other states, ballots merely must be postmarked by the election date or day before. So ballots may roll in days later, which could delay election results. During the past few election cycles California GOP candidates in close races saw their leads on election night vanish as absentee ballots trickled in.

Three-quarters of California voters are expected to receive absentee ballots this year, and political experts project that 40% will be cast before South Carolina’s primary on Saturday. But young people especially tend to procrastinate, so all ballots may not arrive until days after Super Tuesday. Many will also have to be verified.

That’s because Democrats have recently overhauled so many election procedures that mischief and mistakes are almost certain. Californians may now both register and vote at any place in their county on Election Day. Only two weeks ago California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law letting voters change their party identification and address through Election Day. Independents must ask for a Democratic ballot if they want to vote for a Democrat.

Democrats are still griping about the chaotic Iowa caucuses, but the results from California—which awards 495 delegates—may not be known for weeks. This could keep marginal candidates in the race longer. But #Californiaproblems aside, perhaps the larger concern for the Democratic Party is that early voting and late counting could undermine the legitimacy of the eventual nominee.

Who knows how many early votes will be wasted on candidates who drop out before states hold their elections. Late revelations and debate performances could also change voter opinion. Bernie Sanders may benefit since he wouldn’t drop out even on his death bed and his core support seems unshakable. But you can bet his voters will howl if it looks like he may lose some states due to delayed tallies.

Democrats claim early voting increases turnout and thus makes elections more democratic, though most studies show no effect. They also have complained that GOP efforts to truncate early voting discriminate against minorities. Yet Census Bureau data show that blacks are less likely than whites to vote early. Limited early voting may ease congestion at polling places, but even Democrats may soon have second thoughts about turning Election Day into Election Month.

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